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In Rust Belt, Cellblocks Bloom Amid Charges of Political Corruption

In burnt-out Midwestern towns, private prisons are sprouting up among the shuttered steel mills that dot the landscape, intended to shore up the sagging local economies and create new jobs. But while the prisons have produced plenty of bounty for the politicians that cut the deals, the communities that got the jails are worse off than ever.
 
 
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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- Private prisons have sprouted up among the shuttered steel mills that dot this post-urban landscape, but residents say the development has produced more bounty for the politicians that cut the deals than the communities that got the jails.In an age of prosperous exits along the Information Superhighway, Youngstown is the place that got bypassed. Its townships are a broken patchwork of shuttered stores and empty mills interspersed with strip malls, postwar cookie-cutter houses and aging Victorian neighborhoods.Yet the myriad problems that reflect the hopelessness of the place -- crime, corruption, poverty and lacking educational resources -- all congeal around a larger issue: the stagnant regional economyIt's no wonder, says Staughton Lynd, the veteran civil rights activist, author and labor lawyer who has made his home in nearby Niles for 24 years, that none of the presidential candidates managed to fit Youngstown into their schedules. It's much easier, he says, to talk vaguely about much-discussed issues like gun control, tax cuts, abortion, religion, and campaign finance reform than actually confront the reality of a place like Youngstown."For them, Youngstown doesn't exist. To hear them talk, the only problem the U.S. doesn't have is the economy, which clearly isn't the case here," Lynd says. "While crime and corruption hang on, the real issue here is how, since about 1980, we've been promised one entrepreneurial savior after another, and each has been a flop."Lynd recounts the parade of political promises, made by officials belonging to both major parties: "First, it was going to be a community aircraft corporation out by the airport. There were all these fantasies about Youngstown becoming a cargo hub. Then there was Avanti, an auto company, whose scheme was to buy the chasis from nearby GM, but put luxury bodies on, making a $50,000 vehicle from a non-union shop. Then it was a baseball team. Then there was going to be a casino on the river, but local ministers rose up and stopped that."But then, in the heyday of the administration of then-Governor (now Senator) George Voinovich's (R) -- an administration which instituted draconian parole restrictions, a retooling of the parole board and passage of a tough "second offense equals an additional ten year sentence" law that increased the Buckeye State's prison population by 49,000 and has engendered a growing gulag of new prisons and jails --the Corrections Corporation of America came knocking with a proposal to build a private prison in Youngstown.The city and state all but threw their arms around CCA -- a Nashville, Tennessee-based company with a record of cozying up to state and local officials through campaign contributions and close personal alliances."Private prisons have always been able to prey on cities in desperate need of help, and they've been able to do that because those cities stand out," says Bobby Hagan, a Democratic state senator and prison privatization critic who last week unsuccessfully challenged incumbent US representative James Traficant, a private prison booster, for the the 17th Congressional District's Democratic nomination. "They say it's an opportunity for jobs and a better tax base, which lights up the eyes of politicians. But in fact it's the last humiliation for a community struggling to find a better place and a better face."Victim-Town Labor: Cheap and DisposableCCA opened the Northeast Ohio Correction Center in Youngstown in 1997. At the time, CCA said it would only house minimum security prisoners, and would create 350 new jobs.Not only did this seem like an underwhelming economic boon to Lynd (as an article in Washington CityPaper noted in 1998, CCA has pleased both its investors and Wall Street by continually finding new ways at "keeping the industry's main expense-labor-to a minimum"), but he and his wife Alice -- both prisoners' rights activists and legal workers -- were concerned from the beginning about how a private prison would treat inmates. The tour they took of the facility before it opened did little to quell their concerns that rehabilitation wasn't at the forefront of CCA's corporate mind."The first thing you see when you go inside is a plaque on the wall that says, "The price of our stock on the New York Stock Exchange yesterday was 'x'," he recalls. "The folks we were touring with were only concerned about escapes; they couldn't have cared less about what was happening inside. The question was asked, what happens if there's a disturbance. The response was, 'Our orders are to stand back and not risk out own lives because we can always get another.'"Which is, more or less, what happened. The NEOCC was supposed to house only "medium-security" prisoners. But what made prisons a viable private enterprise was the overcrowding of existing state facilities, thanks to tougher sentencing laws that swept the country during the 1990's.Long a dubious priority anyway, rehabilitation went out the window, with space becoming a priority. In April 1997, the Washington, DC, corrections department contracted with CCA's Youngstown facility to take 1700 prisoners from the District's Lorton facility off its hands.Included in those 1700 were a couple hundred of DC's most violent, predatory convicts. When they all arrived at the prison, court records show, they were allowed -- in violation of basic correctional standards -- to mix with the institution's more vulnerable inmates, like 25-year-old Derrick Davis, serving the twelfth month of eighteen on a drug probation violation. As Washington CityPaper reported in 1998, Davis was looking forward to marrying his fiance of six years and had lined up funding to start a construction debris-hauling business.First Youngstown, Then Two More TownsBut in December of 1997, three of NEOCCs more violent residents stabbed Davis to death. Three months later, Byron Chisely (time served by that point: one year, up for parole in 1999), a 23-year old father serving his debt to society for drug and weapons possession charges, was stabbed and subsequently died.Later, six inmates also escaped. Court records from a class action lawsuit found scores of other violent incidents, as well as lax staff training and basic procedure oversights.Fifty percent of the inmates, for example, arrived at the facility bereft of medical records.If all this is part of "economic development," says Lynd, this is not the kind of economic development Youngstown needs. But the prospect, however false, of revitalization via a private prison is a powerful one; while there was community hue and cry after the escapes, once the inmates were returned, it was as if "the entire community subjected itself to a lobotomy." The reason? "In comes Traficant with his never-to-be forgotten Memorandum of Understanding, and the Youngstown Vindicator editorializes that it's good our congressman is looking for economic alternatives."Traficant did sponsor federal legislation for an investigation of CCA after the prison break. But not long afterwards, he signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with CCA to help the company site two new facilities in the his district, and went so far as to promise in writing to help CCA "obtain the approval of the appropriate local officials, board and Commissions" to expand the NEOCC by 500 beds.Reaction in Ohio was hardly favorable; noting that the NEOCC "has a safety record that ranks among the worst in Ohio history," Ronald Alexander, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, made the persuasive point that private prisons and public safety did not go hand in hand.And in a formal complaint to the House ethics committee on July 7 of last year, Jennifer O'Connell of the 150,000-member Ohio Citizen Action activist group asked for an investigation, as Traficant apparently "committed himself to act as an agent of a private for-profit corporation on these matters, which involve the public duties of his office."Of Prisons, Politics and PayoffsTraficant, for his part, has held that he's just doing his job, trying to find jobs for his district. Yet the prison issue has given Traficant some primary headaches of late. Under normal circumstances, his usual shtick-angry, bombastic, working-class oratory might be enough to deflect the issue. At the moment, however, Traficant's name is also being bandied about in discussions of corruption -- a problem that also relates to Youngstown and the private prison.Thus far, an ongoing federal corruption probe here in the Mahoning Valley has seen 58 people convicted, including two former Traficant aides admitted to doing the bidding of convicted gangster Lenny Strollo.To date, the federal grand jury has heard testimony from witnesses regarding Traficant's gratis driving of local merchants' sports cars, payments (or lack thereof) made on a barn he had built, use of staffers for private work on public time, and his stunning-for-a-congressman lack of reported gifts over $250 since 1985, among other things.The federal grand jury that has heard testimony regarding Traficant's practices is not investigating CCA.However, in other state and federal probes, the name of CCA's design and construction partner in building the NEOCC -- "The V Group," headed by Senator George Voinovich's brother Paul -- continues to crop up.During the Voinovich administation, The V Group got around $100 million of the state's business, but didn't always act in a way municipalties found satisfactory; the group was recently ordered to pay a local county nearly $14 million for being over budget and less-than-competent in its work on a jail construction project. Other investigations of the group are still ongoing.The End of an Era?Last week, there were hopes amongst the more reform-minded of Youngstown that Traficant might actually be defeated in Tuesday's primary; despite facing a vote-splitting three challengers, a poll last week showed Traficant in a dead heat with Hagan.Throughout his campaign, Hagan held that Traficant's time as congressman -- an era hallmarked by infamous working-class rants from the House floor that have alienated many other congressman, who vote on which districts get the most federal money back -- had come and gone."When the mills pulled up stakes and left a legacy of pollution, people rose up with the venom of revenge, and Jim played to that very well," says Hagan. "It's over now. While that may have been theraputic, it didn't improve the quality of life." He pauses. "Kind of like the CCA prison."But in Tuesday's primary, Traficant prevailed. The reason, says Mark Shutes, a cultural anthropologist at Youngstown State University, is both simple and complex: "This community is yet to become fully aware that the divisions we have in our heads are harming us, and that we have to begin to see ourselves as a larger community in a larger world," he says. "There's a belief here that anything having to do with politics and economics is inherently corrupt, and the only way to deal with them is to send out brokers you know to that corrupt world to protect you and yours, and Traficant has played to that message better than any other politician."One can, however, interpret the Democratic primary's outcome optimistically: "That the man who won went from 78 percent last election to just over 50 percent this time is reassuring that patience and continuous work are having an effect," says Shutes.Last year, a number of local churches and concerned citizens formed ACTION, an activist group that has honed in on the issues of education, urban development and corruption; that Traficant's historic margin was whittled down is a sign to Shutes that ACTION's message is slowly taking root."It's the first time people in this area have begun to say, we're not the victims," Shutes explains, "but we're the cause because of the way we look at the world and we've been willing to turn our heads. That three candidates were willing to stand on that and face Traficant is progress."Jason Vest, a former Washington correspondent for The Village Voice and U.S. News & World Report, is the national affairs correspondent for SpeakOut.com.